Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

SRI LANKA: Hopes High for Fresh Leadership as Election Looms

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Nov 13 2009 (IPS) - Political developments are rapidly unfolding as the public eagerly awaits the President’s announcement on Sunday of the date for the next presidential or parliamentary polls—an event widely expected to bring about a new leadership that could bring to fruition the people’s collective yearnings for a return to law and order as well as discipline.

“Discipline has crumbled in the country. There is no order,” said a sports journalist working for a local newspaper, who declined to be named.

Rajapaksa’s popularity soared during heightened battles between government forces and Tamil separatist guerrillas in the past 36 months. Yet in recent months it has been slipping, with the resignation on Thursday of a popular and powerful army general further lifting a rejuvenated opposition.

General Sarath Fonseka, Chief of Defence Staff and widely credited with leading the army to a crushing victory over Tamil rebels in May this year, has resigned from his position over disagreements with the President. Once a key member of the ‘war cabinet’ with Rajapaksa and his brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Fonseka fell out with the brothers in a spat over who should take credit for the victory.

The General is widely tipped to enter the presidential race as a common candidate for an opposition alliance, which includes the main opposition United National Party (UNP)—a development that has been played out daily in newspapers, radio and television, and endorsed by a large segment of the population.

The spat with the ruling party hierarchy, which has been publicly aired, has lifted the opposition from its subordinate position. Daily press conferences and small public meetings among opposition leaders headed by UNP chief Ranil Wickremasinghe have denounced the government and praised Fonseka, turning the entire process into an election campaign.

It was only a few months back, just before the war ended in May and soon after, that the government won overwhelmingly at a series of provincial elections.

Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council and a popular political commentator, says the Fonseka factor has completely revived the opposition. “Optimism is growing in the opposition camp as there is a sense that they have (finally) found a candidate that can win against Rajapaksa,” he said. Rajapaksa has been in power since November 2005. His political fate will be decided in the polls due to be held between January and April next year, the exact date of which will be known by Sunday.

Fonseka has studiously avoided the media since his disagreement became public with the current administration. His reported political plans have drawn criticisms from government ministers – which in turn have become fodder for the local press.

Soon after his resignation on Thursday, Sri Lanka’s most decorated soldier visited a Buddhist temple with his wife to take part in religious observances. Swarmed by the media, Fonseka deftly parried questions on his political future.

“I am a soldier, still in uniform (until the end of the month when the resignation takes effect). After that I will resume civilian life and have the same rights as a civilian,” the 59-year old official said with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

The jubilation and fervour that greeted his anticipated foray into politics has been seen as a welcome respite from the people’s desperation over the breakdown in law and discipline since the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began.

Abductions of political opponents and harassment of the media in which scores of journalists have been killed, assaulted or abducted, among other human rights issues, have prompted the West to accuse the government of turning a blind eye to several international conventions on human rights and governance that Sri Lanka has ratified.

Citing allegations of rampant corruption in the present government, UNP leader Wickremasinghe has pointed fingers at some members of the Rajapaksa clan, including Basil Rajapaksa, a powerful advisor to the president, and Minister Chamal Rajapaksa, both brothers of the president.

Although public support was high and tolerant of other misdeeds during the recent, bloody military campaign against the rebels, sympathy towards the president and the government is now waning.

While the war against the Tamil rebels, who have been involved in a near 30- year armed struggle to push for more power in the northern and eastern regions where most of the Tamil minority community lives, has effectively ended, thousands of civilians displaced during the fierce fighting between the government troops and the LTTE, still remain in government camps.

“I feel the General can restore law and order. We have lost our ‘Vinnaya’ (discipline),” Nishantha Amila, a 22-year-old shopkeeper, who said he supported the war campaign.

Wariyapola Silva, a taxi driver, is confident that the General can restore discipline in the country, and with that the cost of living burden will also be taken care of. “He can get rid of corruption and use that money to cut huge expenditure costs of government and reduce the cost of goods,” he said.

This week, trade unions attached to the petroleum, water, electricity and ports sectors launched a work-to-rule campaign that ended on Friday, backing demands for a wage hike that they said had been delayed for three years due to high war spending.

The campaign, in which workers refused overtime and shift work or fill for an absent colleague, failed to disrupt services. But unions are still flexing their muscles for a general strike in the coming weeks—in all sectors, including the private sector—backed by political parties.

Kadirgama Thangeswary, a female parliamentarian from the Tamil National Alliance in the eastern town of Batticaloa, says the Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, a former militant backed by the Rajapaksa administration, is harassing his opponents.

“There is no law and order in Batticaloa. Last month, officials who invited me to open some libraries in the region were threatened and warned,” she said, adding that abductions were taking place daily.

Wijedasa Rajapakse, a former minister and government parliamentarian who recently crossed over to the opposition, says the problem (over Fonseka) began when the war ended and there was a scramble for “credits”.

“The government wanted to take credit for the war. The Rajapaksas wanted credit and so did Fonseka. Then there was a rift and the General was sidelined,” he said. Gen Fonseka has in recent speeches said credit for winning the war should go to the soldiers and not the politicians, a remark that has repeatedly irked the government.

“During this clash for credits, the people saw who the real heroes were. They also saw Fonseka as someone who would bring the rule of law and discipline back to society. The people have been waiting for someone to provide strong and disciplined leadership and that’s how Fonseka has emerged,” he said.

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